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A story gone viral turned into a valuable civics lesson

Lutheran school caught in media maelstrom

Sixth graders at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Waverly shared their disappointment about a cancelled visit to the White House in this photo that appeared on Facebook, and then went viral. Photo Credit: Karen Thalacker

Fifteen students in the sixth grade class at St. Paul’s Lutheran School (ELCA) in Waverly, Iowa, headed to Washington, D.C. on March 15. It didn’t turn out quite as planned, but the disappointment of a cancelled visit to the most famous house in the country taught the students how government works — and sometimes doesn’t.
The school staff and parents spent two years planning the adventure. Conceived of as a key element in a “capstone project” for students soon to graduate from St. Paul’s School, the journey was intended to help young scholars learn about their government, better understand the meaning of citizenship, underscore the importance of vocation, and help them grow as persons of faith.
The students, along with their teacher, Lynn Brown, and school principal Christi Lines, visited the U.S. Capitol building, the front steps of the Supreme Court building, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo, Arlington National Cemetery, and George Washington’s Virginia home at Mount Vernon.
Conspicuously absent from the itinerary was the White House, also known as “The People’s House.” Getting a tour of the President’s mansion is always chancy. Timing is everything. (Allow too little time to secure gate passes and you can’t get in.) The sixth graders did everything right — and, almost at the last minute, secured the needed entry credentials.
But then the sequester kicked in. The now-familiar governmental scheme to cut federal spending went into effect just before the sixth graders left for the nation’s capital. While most cuts haven’t yet taken effect, the White House made an early decision to cancel all tours. That meant the kids from Waverly were out of luck.

The attention of the White House

ABC News decided to run a story on school groups losing their chances to visit the White House. By random selection, they decided to feature St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Waverly. ABC had seen a story on he school’s Facebook site, which included a now-famous picture (page 22) taken by one of the sixth graders’ parents, Karen Thalacker. It showed the Waverly students holding up signs declaring, “The White House is our house. Please let us visit!”

St. Paul’s Lutheran School, Waverly, is the only ELCA elementary school in the state of Iowa. Photo credit: Michael L. Sherer

The now-familiar governmental scheme to cut federal spending went into effect just before the sixth graders left for the nation’s capital.

Thalacker and the students spoke with ABC using the Skype messaging system. A YouTube version of the interview went viral on the Internet. Soon news media all over the country were talking about the plight of the sixth graders. It didn’t get their White House tour reinstated, but it created an enormous amount of publicity for the Lutheran college town — and, especially, for St. Paul’s Lutheran School.
An anchor from Fox News put St. Paul’s pastor, the Rev. Curt Schneider, on national television. Schneider says, “[These sixth graders] have learned a priceless lesson about what it means to be a citizen.”
Schneider thinks the story might have died after the ABC feature. But one journalist who saw it brought it up at a media briefing at the White House. He asked press secretary Jay Carney, “What have you got to say to those school kids from St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, who can’t tour the White House now?” That, said Schneider, was when Fox and other media jumped on the story. “Suddenly it was everywhere.”
An Associated Press (AP) story about the disappointed Waverly sixth graders appeared in newspapers across the country, including as far away as suburban Los Angeles. Thalacker’s photo was included.
“We are not choosing sides,” Thalacker told the AP. “Our children are not Democrats, are not Republicans. Our children are Americans who want to visit the White House.”

Let’s play hoops

The students asked their congressman, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, of Waterloo, Iowa, to deliver a letter to the White House for them. It was a message they had written in pencil on lined notebook paper, asking President Barack Obama to do what he could do to open the White House. In a footnote, punctuated with a smiley face, they wrote, “P.S. Our class would like to play basketball with you.”
It began to dawn on the students and school officials that all the publicity might prompt the White House to make an exception for them. But the students were of one mind. Thalacker said, “They decided if that was offered, they would refuse. They knew it wouldn’t be fair to any other school whose students were excluded.”
St. Paul School’s Facebook page, on which the photo appeared, was only launched this year. Thalacker says only a few hundred views had been logged before the White House invitation was cancelled. She says, “The Monday morning after the story began to circulate, we thought we might get some extra Facebook traffic. By 10:00 a.m., we knew we needed all hands on deck to handle all the phone calls and media contacts. And by Wednesday of the same week, our Facebook page had received 200,000 views. Two. Hundred. Thousand!”
The students had a rich travel experience, even without a visit to the White House. When they returned, the congregation got a full report. Part of their capstone project involved interviewing senior citizens in the congregation, asking them how faith has shaped their life journeys. A video showing those interviews, along with recollections of the visit to the nation’s capital, will be featured in a presentation at St. Paul’s Church on Sunday, April 14.

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